Syria’s Hafez al-Assad was born October 6, 1930 and died of a heart attack June 10, 2000. His son, Bashar al-Assad, succeeded him as President.
Hafez was Prime Minister of Syria from 1970 to 1971, and President from 1971 till the day he died in 2000.
From 1970 to 2000, he served as Secretary of the Syrian Regional Command of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party and Secretary General of the National Command of the Ba’ath Party. He was also Minister of Defense from 1966 to 1972.
Assad adhered to the ideologies of Arab nationalism, Arab socialism and secularism.
Hafez was born in Syria to a poor Alawite family. Alawite is a minority religious sect that has its roots with the Muslim Shiite religion.
In 1946, as a student activist, he joined the Syrian wing of the Ba’ath Party. In 1952, he entered the Homs Military Academy and graduated three years later as a pilot.
From 1958-1961, Syria had a short-lived union with Egypt as the United Arab Republic. Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt at this time, along with other worried parties in both Egypt and Syria, were working to lessen the powers of the communists in the area. One of their solutions was a union between the two countries
Nasser favored a federal union, not a total union, but he was more afraid of a communist takeover in Syria. If it were to be a total union, it would be on his terms. His terms was to demand that all parties be dissolved, the army would withdraw from politics, and a plebiscite by the people would be held.
The powers in Syria agreed with the plebiscite, but the other two demands were hard to swallow. However, Nasser was very popular in Syria, and the increasing strength of the Syrian Communist Party, worried the ruling Ba’ath Party. They were too weak to resist Nasser’s demands and it was already too late to make any changes.
Like all other parties in Syria, Hafez al-Assad’s Syrian Ba’ath Party suffered when forced to disband. Egypt for a short time took over the majority of the positions in Syria, and although the union was doomed from the start, it averted the communist threat.
From 1959–1961, Hafez lived in Egypt. While there, he and other military officers formed a committee to resurrect the Syrian Ba’ath Party. In 1963, two years after the short union with Egypt, the Ba’athists regained power in Syria, with Assad becoming commander of the air force.
In 1966, Assad took part in a coup that overthrew the civilian leadership of the Ba’ath party. Its founders were sent into exile, and Assad rose to become Minister of Defense.
In 1967, Assad was dealt a blow that was to shape the rest of his future. It was during his time, when he was Minister of Defense, that Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel, during the Six-Day War.
In 1970, when King Hussein of Jordan attempted to expel the PLO from his country (see: Black September in Jordan), Hafez tried to intervene by entering the conflict on the side of the Palestinians. Hafez sent in a brigade of armored forces. His forces included Commandos, the 88th and 91st Tank Brigades, and the 67th Mechanized Brigade with over 200 Russian built T-55 tanks.
Hafez tried to send in the air force, but since he was involved with his own power struggle at home against Salah al-Jadid, the leader of Syria, and with the threat of an Israeli air raid against Syria, the Syrian air force was never involved.
Almost overrun, the Jordanians eventually broke the will of the Syrian forces with their own unopposed air force. Late in the afternoon of September 22, 1970, the Syrians began to retreat.
After the Jordanian fiasco, Assad’s final coup against his internal rivals was to finish his protracted power struggle with Salah al-Jadid, chief of staff of the armed forces. Al-Jadid had been Assad’s political mentor and was the effective leader of Syria. Nevertheless, in November 1970, Assad seized total control and arrested Jadid, along with other members of the government.
In 1970, Hafez al-Assad became prime minister and in 1971, he was elected president. At the time of his death in 2000, he had ruled Syria for 30 years.
Hafez’s supporters have lauded him for being a champion of secularism, women’s rights, and Syrian nationalism. He earned praise for bringing stability to Syria, and for improving relations between Syria and the Western powers by supporting the USA in the Gulf War of 1990–1991 (also known as the Persian Gulf War, the First Gulf War, Gulf War I, or the First Iraq War).
Under his administration, Syria saw increased stability with a program of secularism and industrialization designed to modernize and strengthen the country as a regional power. With Soviet aid, Assad built up the Syrian military and gained popular support with public works funded by Arab donors and international lending institutions.
Hafez’s critics criticized him for being a dictator and using brutal tactics. In 1982, when the Muslim Brotherhood mounted a rebellion in the Syrian city of Hama, Hafez suppressed the revolt by massacring between 10,000–25,000 people.
Like most dictators, Hafez constructed a cult personality, while his authoritarian administration oversaw multiple human rights abuses both at home and abroad. Aside from his meddling in Jordan, as mentioned above during the Black September in Jordan incident, Hafez was also involved in Lebanon. He systematically eliminated political dissent with arrests, torture, and execution, both inside Syria and across Lebanon, to secure his control over the two “sister” countries. Hezbollah, the terrorist group inside Lebanon, still to this day enjoys Syria’s total support.
In 1973 Assad changed Syria’s Constitution in order to guarantee equal status for women and enable non-Muslims to become president. The latter change was due to pressure from the Muslim Brotherhood. It was probably also due to his being an Alawite Muslim. Since his religion is a small minority in Syria, Hafez was forced to embrace secularism else, his own power would be weakened.
In foreign affairs, Assad tried to establish Syria as a leader of the Arab world. A new alliance with Egypt culminated in the Yom Kippur War against Israel in October 1973. Egypt’s unexpected cessation of hostilities exposed Syria to military defeat.
In 1976, with Lebanon racked by the civil war, Assad dispatched several divisions to that country and secured their permanent presence as part of a peacekeeping force sponsored by the Arab League.
After Israel’s invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon in 1982–1985, Hafez was able to reassert control of the country, eventually compelling Lebanese Christians to accept constitutional changes granting Muslims equal representation in government. Hafez also aided Palestinian and Lebanese resistance groups based in Lebanon and Syria.
Hafez supported Iran in its war against Iraq (1980–1988), and sought to establish peaceful relations with Israel in the mid-1990s. His repeated call for the return of the Golan Heights stalled the talks.